It is difficult
It is difficult
to get the news
yet men die miserably
for lack of
what is found there.
- william carlos williams
Look to the art that is being created today to see the future. Artists are the barometers of time – the recorders of history, the sensors of the present, and critically, the harbingers of the future.
When Picasso’s long awaited portrait of Gertrude Stein was finally unveiled and panned by a number of critics, one of them saying “that doesn’t look at all like Gertrude Stein”, the artist responded “Don’t worry, it will.”
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog takes us spelunking on a 3-D peepshow into the sealed off Paleolithic Chauvet Caves in France to osmose the extant relics of the first human works of art. Contoured by the cavern’s natural relief and outcroppings, the 35,000 year old renderings of prehistoric horses and bison pound, snort and thunder, pulsing amid the dancing shadows. Upon personally experiencing the magic of these cosmic depictions, connecting to the beings that created them across the eons, an anthropologist asks “What if man had not been called homo sapiens but rather homo spiritualis?” Or homo ludens “man the player” as coined in the 1950’s by Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga?
Send in the Clowns
The year is 1995 and Bogota, Columbia is listed on the international watch advisory as the most dangerous city in the world, rampant with narco traficantes, warlords and corruption. Traffic deaths alone, caused mostly by the fear of carjacking, top one thousand five hundred a year. It’s a nightmare. You’re the new mayor. What do you do?
Enter Antanas Mockus, a university professor of mathematics and philosophy who campaigned for mayor on a platform of non-violence with the slogan “arm yourself with love.” He won promising the first thing he would do was deal with the traffic deaths.
After two months and no policy ideas in sight, he almost gave up when an elder in the community, joked that “when there’s nothing left to do, send in the clowns.” He had his answer.
Within weeks, he fired 400 corrupt traffic cops and replaced them with – mimes – yes I said mimes – who now controlled the street corners with nothing but signs that read correcto on one side if people stopped at the red light and incorrecto when they didn’t.
Surely they issued tickets? – no. They had guns? No. They were doubly unarmed – with neither words nor weapons.
Antanas also had shooting stars painted on the pavement at every spot where someone had been killed – making people think twice before jumping into a busy intersection.
Policy makers, take note. In the first year, traffic deaths dropped by fifty per cent.
This eventually created what he called a cultura ciudadana or a citizenship culture – fertile ground for him to then introduce a volunteer disarmament program aimed at reducing the percentage of murders committed by guns. As a result of City Hall’s campaign “That all guns rest in peace for this Christmas”, the homicide rate dropped drastically in just 10 years. What did they do with the weapons? Melted them into spoons for thousands of disadvantaged children, and each was inscribed with the words “I was a gun”.
This artist mayor preferred to see himself as a creative pedagogue and his city as a large classroom. He realized that he had very little time to address a societal problem that had reached crisis proportions. And he understood the transformational power of an intervention that is “artistic” in nature and how art “enlarges the repertoire of conceivable actions”, and acts as an acupuncture point that resonates through the whole system.
And he understood how ART moves people from apathy to empathy. Pedestrians who were used to not trusting anyone, rushing through the streets, clutching their handbags, arrived at an intersection to encounter not a heavily armed, imposing police officer, but a clown. And one that appeared to have the situation under control. The clown evoked an unexpected emotional reaction. And there is never lasting change without emotion.
Invoking the mimes was what Matthew May, the author of In Pursuit of Elegance would describe as an “elegant” intervention. He argues that the best solutions have something missing, that “full power is achieved when maximum impact is achieved with minimum input.” Art, in its economy and efficiency, embodies this notion. Its seductive quality reaches out to us and invites us in a non-confrontational and non-violent way to interpret it, and through it, ourselves, our feelings, our impressions, our judgments. It invites us to play. What is key is that this moment takes us out of our normal way of looking at things, it is what renders the familiar unfamiliar, for a split second, we see the world differently. We dare to imagine an adjacent possibility.
Moreover, an elegant solution, like the mimes in Bogotá, acts as acupuncture – it penetrates a precise point and then reverberates throughout the entire system. The combination of the mimes, the stars and the cards spread virally to do much more than reduce traffic deaths. It gave citizens a sense of pride and admiration in each other. Citizens reclaimed responsibility for their safety and began to self-regulate. While saving thousands to the administration, it cracked the corruption problem. It brought security back to the streets and launched the dawning of the cultura ciudadana.
The new sense of citizenship was fertile ground for Mockus to then introduce a volunteer disarmament program aimed at reducing the percentage of murders committed by guns. As a result of City Hall’s campaign “That all guns rest in peace for this Christmas”, the homicide rate dropped from 80 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in just 10 years. What did they do with the weapons? Melted them, converted them into spoons for disadvantaged children, and inscribed them with “I was a gun”.
As citizens began to take pride in their city and adopt a sense of a “citizenship culture”, Mockus introduced a voluntary tax system, asking citizens to pay 10 per cent extra. 63,000 responded to the call and between 1990 and 2002, Bogotá’s tax revenues more than tripled, increasing from $200 million to $750 million. While some fifteen years later, Bogotá still struggled with gangs and corruption, as a result of Mockus invoking “surprise” and enlarging the repertoire of conceivable actions, the capital’s slogan was “The only risk is that you’ll never want to leave.”
The Famous 5
October 28, 1929 was an historic day for the 50 something year old country of Canada.
Thanks to 5 women from the Province of Alberta – Emily Murphy, Nellie McLung, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir-Edwards and Louise McKinney – Women became persons. Twenty years ago, Albertan and feminist activist Frances Wright noted the glaring absence of these 5 heroes in our collective history and decided to do something about it.
The result was a set of two larger than life bronze statues of these five celebrating The Persons Case , on Olympic Plaza in Calgary Alberta and one on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
The bronzes are a magnificent and effective piece of public art – interactive, experiential, open, accessible, moving. It acts as an educational tool, a place for individuals to find solace, a reminder of what 5 people can do to change the world, and now a tourist attraction.
The genius of the piece is that you can walk into it, touch the tea cup that represented the tactic that they used to mobilize their troops, read from the declaration, and sit in Emily’s Chair, as so many have done for a photo op.
In 2019, Calgary Poet Laureate Sheri-D Wilson launched a project inviting Calgarians to subit a poem that would recognize people or groups that represent and reflect the spirit and values of our city. But the catch was that you could not name the person or the group. She called it YYC-PoP ( Portraits of People).
Here is the piece I submitted about Frances Wright which made it into the anthology.
She made them Famous. 5 female Alberta figures,
statuesque even before the bronzes
rose out of the Calgary Olympic Plaza and
Parliament Hill in Ottawa
where only men dominated the landscape
with the exception of two British Queens, one on a horse.
A work of art, for the Public. Public Art.
Enter the circle and join in an historic conversation.
Sit in Emily’s Chair. Relax.
Women are persons. Happy 70th Anniversary.
And before October 18, 1929 we were??
Something with pains and penalties,
But no rights or privileges.
Her Mother Irma was born a something.
She left us 93 years later as a person. And voted in every election.
And so should you.
Irene. Emily. Nellie. Henrietta. Louise.
5 powerhouses of democracy who took it to the Privy Council. And won.
The Persons Case.
No coup. No violence. No war.
An overdue and irreversible transfer of power.
Strategized over decades and cups of tea.
Now they are printed and minted on our $50 Bill
and in a Girl Scout’s Badge, if you earn it.
Learn it in school, or online.
They’re everywhere. Finally. They’re Famous.
“Disturbers are never popular – nobody ever really loved an alarm clock in action….” Said Nellie.
I set my clock at 6 am as one would do.
She sets hers at 5:55
[and so should you]
Try and thank her.
To the hundreds, the thousands
she catalyzed, mobilized, inspired,
She smiles “I didn’t do this. You did.
And like Emily, may you feel equal to high and splendid braveries!”
Friend. Sister. Daughter of the quiet revolutionaries.
Builder. Illuminator. Convenor. Educator. Person
Alfredo Jarr – Burn it to the ground
We sat cross-legged on the carpet in the living room at the gathering after his presentation, just me and Alfredo Jarr, the other guests chattering on the surrounding sofas and chairs, invisible and inaudible to my eyes and ears,. “So what do they teach at the Kennedy School?” he probed, after I invited him to give a lecture on leadership. I could see that he was wondering what an artist specialized in public art installations could possibly contribute. “I’ve spoken to artists, photographers, intellectuals, poets, authors – no – never to students of leadership”. Shame, I thought, we have so much to learn from Alfredo Jarr.
It was a hunch – “Parlez-vous francais?” I asked en passant and he responded in the most articulate, poetic French. I knew that he was born in Chile and now made his home in New York. Now he shared that he had lived as a youngster for ten years in Martinique. Back and forth we went between my two native tongues. My mind was still abuzz about It is Difficult, the lecture he had just given, talking us through his work, his approach and methodology, the projects he undertakes and in particular his intervention installation in Skoghalls, Sweden. I thought of how many community and arts leaders have struggled for decades to build a museum or an art gallery in their town or city. How they gathered friends and colleagues and established a committee, raised money, secured a site, got land-use approval, hit an economic downturn, started over, replaced dispirited founders, witnessed the site be repurposed, rallied a new team, and on and on. In came Alfredo Jarr, from Chile through New York to Skoghalls and with one public art intervention, in one day, managed to make a cultural space a priority for this Swedish community.
Trained as an architect, Alfredo now devotes one third of his time to museum works, one third to the creation of public art and one third to teaching by directing workshops and seminars around the world. But my focus was on the methodology he adopts when he goes into a community to create a public work. At the beginning of his career, he would engage in what he termed guerrilla operations. Today, he receives numerous invitations per year by communities and institutions and accepts just one or two. He has the luxury now of setting the conditions for the “commission” which is effectively a carte blanche to create his art, referring to what geographer David Harvey calls “spaces of hope”.
For an artist, his process or methodology is unusual by most standards. First, he chooses his “partners” by carefully assessing who is doing the inviting. To him, the patron or client-artist relationship is a partnership. Is there chemistry and can he trust the people and the institution to be with him for the long run? This, the second point, is essential because he will insist on having the leeway to make as many trips to the community as necessary before producing a work. At times, he is joined by one or more of his assistants, and some research is conducted via the internet. But “nothing beats being there” to interview the people, to observe, to survey both geographically and structurally the meaning or the essence of the city. “Context is everything” he exhorts “and I cannot act without understanding the context or where I am”. It may take up to nine visits for him to reach what he calls a “critical mass” of information so that he can distill things down to one core issue, to articulate a single idea.
For this third step, Jarr stresses the importance of the singularity and simplicity of the idea that will ultimately be embodied in his final work. His methodology or process is about editing, the power lying not in trying to a great many things, but in the single concept. And while he is aware that there may be more than one issue, he waits until he has enough data to intuit which issues he is not in a position to tackle. He claims his research is finished when he has become a part of the community, when he has become invisible. Thinking like an architect, he identifies success from the outset and works towards that. And he reflects further on the advantages of being an outsider: “The last one to realize it is in the water is the fish. And you only realize that when you are taken out.” He can say things through his art that no one else can.
As he did in Skoghalls. This middle class, “company town” boasts a population of some twelve thousand, and the entire economy revolves around Stora-Enso, a manufacturing plant that rolls out reams of the treated paper used for milk and juice cartons. During his research, Jarr became appalled at what became glaringly absent to him – any cultural life or public space for art. In fact, he would hear later from a survey conducted by one of the local students that the reason no one ever thought in fifty years to have a museum was that the community didn’t need one. He boldly stated his observations to the Stora-Enso board after rejecting the commission from the town: It is time for Skoghall to present to Sweden and to the world a new image, a contemporary image of progress and culture, beyond being a dormitory for the Paper Mill workers. An image of creativity and actuality. An image of a dynamic and progressive place where culture is created, not only consumed. A living culture is one that creates.
He then formulated the following proposal for a temporary contemporary art museum:
The Skoghall Konsthall
I propose to design and build a new, contemporary structure to house the new Skoghall Konsthall. This structure will be built completely in paper produced by the Paper Mill, in close collaboration with local architects and builders.
The design will reflect the best of contemporary Swedish architecture in its minimal elegance and respect for the environment. It will also reflect the generous commitment of the main local industry in the creation of a forward looking structure and institution that will project Skoghall into the future.
The opening exhibition
The opening exhibition will feature the first exhibition ever held in Skoghall of young emerging Swedish artists from Stockholm, Malmo and Gotenburg. The Konsthall will be officially inaugurated by the Mayor of the City, in the presence of the entire local community.
The Closing Ceremony
Exactly 24 hours after its opening, the Skoghall Konsthall will disappear, engulfed in flames. The burning of the structure will be pre-planned and will satisfy the most demanding security requirements.
By its paper nature and design, the Skoghall Konsthall will probably be one of the most advanced contemporary paper structures ever created for contemporary art. But it will also be one of the shortest-lived structures ever created for contemporary art.
I am hoping that this combination of creativity and ephemeral existence will perhaps help define the importance of contemporary art in our lives.
And it is my hope that the extremely short life of the Skoghall Konsthall will make visible the void in which we would live if there was no art. And this realization will perhaps lead the city of Skoghall into the creation of a much-needed permanent space for contemporary creation and projection.
Alfredo Jarr, Notes on The Skoghall Konsthall, 1999
They built the paper museum, the majority of citizens attended, the paper mill orchestra played and the Mayor made a speech. The newly minted “museum goers” proudly toured the exhibits, rubbing shoulders with their friends and family, enjoying this unique opportunity to enjoy art together in their new arts and culture space. Twenty four hours later, everyone came back, the site was cordoned off, the Swedish flag was ceremoniously removed from its pole and firemen in asbestos suits entered the structure and took a blow torch to the timbers. The town watched in horror, dismay, disgust, sadness, remorse, resentment and anger as their new Kontshall was engulfed in flames. Within a year plans were afoot for a space for culture and seven years later, Jarr was invited to design a museum.
Alfredo Jarr – Dear Markus, 2011
In the spring of 2010, Public Art Interventionist Alfredo Jarr was on the verge of giving up on the commission for Turku, one of six thousand small islands comprising the archipelago in Finland’s Baltic Sea. That year, Turku had been named the Arts Capital of Europe and as he explored the extraordinary, barren and breath-taking landscape by tourist boat and ferry, he was so taken by the beauty that he felt he had nothing to add. And a further dilemma lies in this northern, natural and barely inhabited land: even if he could come up with a work, who would be his audience? …The tourists? The non-local lords of the mansions that punctuated the islets? The residents whose number you could estimate by counting the multi-colored mailboxes at the post office? The bird-watchers? Here I must digress. Jarr just didn’t “get” birdwatchers.
He was simply fascinated by people who would travel thousands of miles to one of the most remote places on the globe to catch a glimpse, through binoculars, of “a single little bird”. On one of his visits, a tourist boat was packed because one phone call to the island had alerted them all of the possible presence of the rare plover he recalled was the columbinus. “They didn’t even want to take a picture! Look at them!” he marveled, totally bemused as slide after slide showed variations and permutations of Jane Hathaways perched over the guardrails, their Bushnells glued to their eyebrows. “What’s so weird about that?” I thought, reminiscing about my own heart-stopping birding moments in South Africa, Venezuela, Zanzibar, Nova Scotia and Iguassu. The most memorable occurred in Costa Rica’s bird watching mecca, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where travelling by myself I was missing the company and fellowship of other birders. I was gingerly circling a group from Louisiana, getting the sidelong glances that are reserved for freeloaders when I overhead the renowned ornithologist brief the group on the possible sightings for that morning. I happened to have toured the park at sunrise and politely leaning into the crowd, I offered to lead them directly to the ubiquitous Three-Waddled Bellbird, and then to the Resplendent Quetzal. I was immediately in and adopted for the duration of their stay.
But let’s return to Finland where Jarr was making one of his research trips. It was an early morning in the mist and silence of the archipelago as he sat waiting for a boat to take him on a four-hour journey back from Utö. Upon boarding, he was both perplexed and annoyed that it departed at 5:45. “No wonder this boat is nearly empty” he complained to the captain. “This is the most anti-touristic thing you could do!” The captain chuckled and took him to the seating area on the deck and pointed to a half-asleep teenager sprawled along one of the seats. “We leave at this time because he has to get to school on the main island.” Jarr was so moved that he began to cry at the thought of a country that would place such an investment in a single child. That “happy accident” was the starting point of a work that would reflect a model of society represented by this boat ride and this boy named Markus.
He scrapped all of his other ideas and sent a letter to Finnish intellectuals – journalists, poets, authors, thinkers, musicians – asking them to write a maximum one hundred word letter to Markus on the theme of the boat ride to school. Eleven accepted and their contributions were displayed on “anti-design” white billboards with plain black text representing the letters just as he received them. They dotted the landscape on the route from Utö to Pärnäs. Here’s what a birdwatcher might see through her binoculars:
These are samples of the letters:
You are living a wonderful youth!
Traveling daily from the safety of your island
towards the great unknown
You travel alone in peace
to the community across the water,
Carrying the strength of your inner world
into the world of others.
Be at home in each one.
Rafl Gothóni, Pianist
Do not believe in the bad thoughts of
Always remain true to yourself.
Remember the sun’s haze in May, the
Remember the granite, the dark cliffs
You are all these and everything
Kjell Westö, Author
In the morning you can see the sea, in the
evening the stars. The story of the universe,
the story of life, the story of humankind, your
story: we are all made of the same stardust,
all part of the shared tale that ascends ever
higher. Every fish is your cousin, every pine
tree on the shore is your kin.
Did you see the sunrise today? Do not believe
those who say the world is heading for destruction. Day is dawning, year after
Year, aeon after aeon. The great story of
humankind is only just the beginning, not ending.
Learn, study, gather knowledge and, through
knowledge, wisdom. A better future is in
Esko Valtaoja, Astronomist
ACT UP caught my attention and captured my imagination months before I was introduced to the concept of leadership espoused by Professors Dean Williams and Ron Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership. The activities of this New York phenomenon were brought to my world thanks to Helen Molesworth, the then curator of the Houghton Contemporary Gallery of the Harvard Art Museum. As you entered, a large poster displayed red block letters which read “KNOW YOUR SCUMBAGS”.
The tagline under the condom reads “This one prevents AIDS”.
The mirror in the women’s room was framed by lettering which read:
I AM A/ mannish / muffdiver/ amazon / feminist /queer / lesbian / femme AND proud! I AM A / lezzie / butch / pervert / girlfriend / bulldagger / sister / dyke AND PROUD!
I learned during the course of the lecture by the curator that these evocative and provocative exhibits were part of a series of interventions used by a curious movement which was launched in 1987 and lasted for nearly twenty years. I was particularly attracted to this project because of the predominant use of art as the means for intervention. This demonstrates the power of symbols, metaphors and images as an armless weapon to capture attention, raise and lower tension, to reach emotions and change values. It was the work of a group of passionate artists, film and theatre people, and designers who brought their visual talents to bear to produce nationwide social movement and change.
The movement was curious also because it was a stunning example of radical democracy from which no single charismatic voice emerged and with which no particular leader is identified. Names such as fierce pussy or Gran Fury (the Plymouth model of automobile used by the New York City Police Department.) and acronyms like DIVA (Damned Interfering Video Artists) represent the myriads of groups that collaborated under the one umbrella organization called ACT UP.
In 1981, a handful of young gay men in Los Angeles were diagnosed with a rare pneumonia and reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Shortly thereafter, a highly unusual skin cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma) was also detected. Both would later become known as AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome). It was referred to as “gay cancer” by the media and healthcare professionals, mistakenly suggesting that there was a link between homosexuality and the syndrome. That year, 182 people died of this unknown condition. By 1983, the virus is became known as HIV and 1,508 deaths were thereto related. By 1985, that number quadrupled, the first major play about the epidemic opened in New York and Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to announce he had AIDS and died later that year. President Reagan mentioned AIDS in a public address for the first time in 1986 and the number of Aids-related deaths had climbed to over 12,000. In 1987, the US Congress adopted by an overwhelming margin an amendment banning the use of federal funds for AIDS education materials that “promote, encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” and the FDA approved the drug treatment AZT which costs $10,000 for a year’s supply.
That year, playwright and activist Larry Kramer called a meeting of those who were increasingly concerned about the medical community’s and the government’s neglect in responding to the devastation being perpetrated by this unknown disease. Over 300 people showed up to form the Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and the first Silence=Death poster appeared on the streets of New York City. The pink triangle was the inversion of the symbol that had been worn by soldiers in WW I to identify themselves as homosexuals. The image was the product of a sub-group of ACT-UP and became the universal symbol for the movement.
The seemingly insurmountable challenges were courageously addressed by this movement which defined itself as “a diverse, non-partisan group of individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis”. Its members came from all walks of New York life, but unlike many other movements for social justice, ACT UP did this through art. In addition to its commitment to direct action – evidenced by its massive and well-coordinated acts of civil disobedience – the group mounted a vibrant visual campaign of posters, stickers and T-Shirts, and organized media savvy street demonstrations aimed at capturing the attention of the evening news as much as that of every day pedestrians.
From 1988 – 1990, ACT UP organized marches on Washington and Wall Street, attracting between hundreds and 500,000 demonstrators. They organized a Women’s Caucus, WHAM (Women’s Health Action and Mobilization), a Needle Exchange Committee, YELL (Youth Education and Life Line), the national ACT NOW coalition, introduced the revolutionary concept of parallel track drug testing, declared a “Day of Desperation” and delivered coffins to city hall.
In other actions, fierce pussy used stencils and spray paint to rename New York City streets after prominent lesbian heroines, and engaged in an iconoclastic greeting card campaign directed at Cardinal O’Connor and Senator D’Amato. One group took over Grand Central Station in a spectacular and massive act of civil disobedience with a banner announcing “One Aids Death every eight Minutes”. Another conducted a die-in on the road to President Bush’s house with a 50 foot banner outlining a 32 point plan and declaring that with 120,000 Americans dead from AIDS, the President was getting away with murder. Over the course of this time there were hundreds of non-violent arrests. ACT UP’s primary goal was always to make the six-o’clock news.
The extremely clever posters targeted different issues. Some were aimed at the non-gay community to raise awareness and appeal to their broader sense of equality, social justice and human rights, the very foundations of the nation.
Some encouraged gay men to practice safe sex: “Men use condoms or beat it”. Some, such as the poster with the bishop, were intended to shame the religious and political leaders. They were shocking, evocative and provocative. The demonstrations, the visual effects, the arrests, the petitions, the die-ins were creative interventions that were constantly changing, holding attention on the issue and maintaining engagement. The activists relentlessly disturbed and perturbed the equilibrium. The ACT UP leaders also acknowledged that their brand of activism could have originated only in a center like New York with its cosmopolitan, educated, arts savvy citizenry. It had a large enough pool of artists to draw from to sustain the quality and diversity of artistic interventions over a long period of time. It took artists to see the hidden issues, to go beneath the surface, to have the courage to create a new language to communicate these complex problems.
Location was also in their favour as they could from there attack the most influential politicians and church leaders, demonstrate on Washington and Wall Street and have access to the relevant local and national institutions and organizations whose partnerships were required. And they had access to representatives from all of their factions who could be recruited for purposes of outreach, coalition building and critical functions like translation services.
By 1992, AIDS had become the number one cause of death for men aged 25-44. Finally President Bill Clinton agreed to a meeting with UAA (United for Aids Action). One thousand people marched in Manhattan to make AIDS an election issue. Eight thousand people held a political funeral in Washington and broke police barriers to scatter the ashes on the White House Lawn. Bill Clinton was elected on a campaign platform that included HIV and AIDS issues. 41,094 people died of HIV-AIDS related causes that year. In 1993, one million lesbians and gays marched on Washington to demonstrate against the pharmaceutical industry and 45,850 deaths were reported. In 1994 they formed further partnerships and pressured Rudolph Juliani and there were 50,842 deaths. 1995 marked the highest numbers of deaths at 54,670. Finally in 1996, the FDA approved a therapy called HAART which helped reduce new AIDS illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths and improved quality of life and life expectancy. The number of deaths dropped to 38, 296. ACT UP had reached many of its objectives and continued to operate but the larger movement dissolved.
While being rational creatures, we humans are also both spiritual and creative by nature, at all ages. Music, as a catalyst for societal progress, has proven to be particularly effective with the youth of our species. One of the best modern day examples where an artistic intervention has had an unprecedented impact on education and social capital is in Venezuela. Forty years ago, Juan Antonio Abreu, an economist and closet maestro who understood the transformational power of music, had a vision for a cultural project and asked himself “What if….Venezuela had a national youth orchestra?” What began with twelve students in a garage has since transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged youth.
It’s called El Sistema, “the system”. Its method, in a nutshell is described by United States Abreu Fellow Marie Montilla who was sent to Caracas to train: “You give a child an instrument and throw them in an orchestra. They sit in a chair all afternoon, no breaks. I thought, this can’t work. I was wrong. I’d never seen so many happy children, not one ever complained.” Any child, from the age of two, can join an urban center or nucleo. Unlike conventional music education in the West, which tends to serve the elite, El Sistema works from the lower classes up, builds on passion and not on talent or skill. In 2012, it existed in twenty-four states in the form of 126 community-based centers and 326 orchestras and choirs. The annual budget tops US $30 million and the program which has migrated through ten different ministries currently sat in direct report to the President.
Venezuela boasts no less than four touring orchestras, its flagship under the skilful baton of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s maestro Gustavo Dudamel, a product of the system who remains dedicated to its growth and success. In 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank approved a US$150 million loan to El Sistema based on its own research that linked the program to declines in drop-out rates and juvenile delinquencies. They calculated that the multiplier effect of one dollar invested in the program is 1.68 in social benefit.
El Sistema is now being introduced into the public school music system and the aspiration is to increase the current nation-wide 250,000 participants to 500,000 by 2015. Many of the children live under conditions of constant fear and trauma, victims of homelessness, poverty, abandonment, violence, abuse and drugs. Montilla concludes: “In El Sistema, t hey can express their emotions through their instruments. This speaks to their spirit. It gives every kid a chance.” One artist businessman’s effort to let the children play is giving hundreds of thousands a hope, a future, and a life with meaning.
Brock University’s Michael P. Berman, might describe Abreu as an “artist leader” and call him a Hermanaut – a seeker, a questioner and crafter of meaning.
The City of Lights
At about the same time as Mayor Antanas Mockus was using mimes to reduce traffic deaths in Bogota, across the ocean in post-Soviet Albania, Edi Rama, a larger than life artist politician was elected Mayor of Tirana, an ugly, neglected patchwork city of grey, uniform, sterile buildings cluttering streets lined with bulbless lampposts hanging uselessly over grey people, trapped in stagnation gazing lifelessly for a better future on more distant shores. How could he bring life to what he called “a boulevard without a city”? What if…he painted the facades of those structures, the reminders of a regimented, oppressive existence in tangerine, aubergine and aquamarine?
Rama recalls the reaction: “And when we painted the first building – purple, and orange – I received a call: there are hundreds of people on the street, it is a traffic chaos. And everybody started to talk about colors – it was the first time that people debated about something which was there, instead of debating what the quickest way out of the country is.” Emmanuel Kant claimed that art, or beauty, courts agreement. While Tiranians were quibbling and pontificating over the juxtapositions of shades and tones, they were seduced into dialogues on their future, into engagement, into a city worth talking about. They were sharing a common experience which, in their reactions and responses, wasn’t that common at all.
The seaside municipality that that had only 78 functioning street lights, has now doubled in size. A veritable pastiche of color, it is also a city worth visiting, with its array of new bars, cafés, restaurants and nightclubs. Rama, who was the winner of the World Mayor award in 2004, capitalized on the dynamism created by Tirana’s facelift to dismantle illegal kiosks and structures built on public land, and expand its parks and green areas. Granted, it has grown and now has “big city” problems, but a new sense of pride and admiration has emerged to change the discourse, and citizens can brag that they are home to The City of Lights.